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Are you turning a Hamster Wheel or your Flywheel?



Do you ever have the feeling of being busy at work but not really making progress?  That your people are doing a lot of stuff, but you’re not sure it is leading to results?


If you answered yes, its possible that you or your people are turning the Hamster Wheel, not your Flywheel.  Which explains the surplus of busyness, and the shortage of meaningful results.


Let’s make a clear distinction between these two wheels. 


The Hamster Wheel is a well-worn image in popular culture.  A small toy-sized barrel-shaped treadmill that a small and furry rodent mounts and turns by clambering up a series of never-ending steps, just turning the wheel endlessly until the Hamster tires or is distracted by something else.


The Flywheel is a phenomenon that Jim Collins discovered in his ground-breaking study of great companies.  He and his colleagues found that in becoming a great organisation, there is no single defining action, no grand program, no single killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment; rather, the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant, heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough and beyond.




Peter Senge in his watershed book The Fifth Discipline also highlighted the beneficial dynamics of the Flywheel when he wrote about Virtuous Cycles and Doom Loops.


I have seen some great local and international examples of Australian business success that stems from leaders identifying and turning their company’s flywheel.  The spectacular Coles transformation led by Ian McLeod; the continued dominance of Monash College in the international education market; and the incredible turnaround of Treasury Wines since 2014.


The Hamster Wheel on the other hand, represents your investments of financial and management capital in activities, initiatives and projects that do nothing or little to help to turn your Flywheel. The Hamster Wheel is also distinguishable from the Flywheel in that it requires different, less productive qualities.  As the Hamster wheel is a form of distraction, is relatively easy to turn, and generates no product, it does not need focus, discipline, grit, or commitment.


The Hamster Wheel is seductive though.  Because it is easier to turn, it generates a sense of progress much more quickly.  It’s also fun sometimes, spinning the wheel gleefully and joyously, unlike the boring, repetitive grind required to turn a flywheel.


To turn your organisations flywheel, you and your people need to be focused, disciplined, relentless and committed.  Ian MacLeod expected that it would take a full five years before Coles would have their flywheel turning at full speed, generating sustainable competitive advantage and superior results. Mike Clarke at Treasury Wines knew that it would take years, not months to turn around the fortunes of their shareholders.


This takes hard sustained work and explains perfectly why some leaders struggle to keep themselves and their teams focused on their flywheel.  It just sometimes easier to give up on the flywheel.  This is where real leadership is required, to keep people focused on the few things that matter for long enough for it to generate the intended results.


It’s hard because people may not like you for it.  Hell, you might not even like it yourself for denying the seductive call of new, novel or more interesting plans, investments, and acquisitions. Remember though, this focus, discipline and relentless attention to your flywheel is the antidote to the Attention Deficit Disorder many organisations and executives seem to suffer from.


To borrow a phrase from Marty Linsky, a Harvard Professor and co-author of Adaptive Leadership, there’s a lot of talk about the inspirational aspects of leadership, but not enough attention being paid to the incredibly important perspirational parts of leadership.


So if you are a senior leader, and you are questioning your business and that of your teams, or evaluating the worth of a new initiative, project or investment, just ask one simple yet courageous question: will this turn our Flywheel, or will it just turn a Hamster wheel.